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Gaza will be 'one big displacement camp' for the foreseeable future, journalist says

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. To understand the war between Israel and Hamas, and its impact on the region, you have to know what's being said in private by leaders who are afraid to say those things in public. That includes Arab leaders, members of Netanyahu's war cabinet, the Israeli military and Gazans. That's part of what I'm going to talk about with Gregg Carlstrom, a Middle East correspondent for The Economist. We'll also talk about why some Arab leaders hate Hamas, fear Iran and have some sympathy for Israel, although not for how Israel is waging the war. Netanyahu doesn't have a political plan for running Gaza. We'll talk about the consequences of that and what life is likely to be like for Gazans in the future.

Gregg Carlstrom has covered the Middle East for more than a decade. He's the author of the 2017 book, "How Long Will Israel Survive?: The Threat From Within." When we recorded our interview yesterday, he was in Dubai where he's based.

Gregg Carlstrom, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with what people are saying in private but not in public. Are you hearing anything from the Israeli military?

GREGG CARLSTROM: What they've been saying in private for a while now, they have actually just - in the past few days started to say in public, and that is that the government has no strategy for this war. The Israel government has no strategy for this war. There's been a lot of focus obviously over the past week on the Israelis beginning this military offensive in Rafah in Southern Gaza. But in parallel to that, they've also been sending troops back into several parts of Northern Gaza, places like Jabalia, where they had sent troops months ago in the early weeks of their ground offensive, and they said they had fought and finished everything they needed to do, and they withdrew from these areas. And they're now going back because the government, the Israeli government, has no political strategy for what to do with Gaza after the fighting is done. It has no political strategy for who's going to take control of Gaza and secure Gaza. And so the army has been grumbling in private for some time now that this is just going to create an endless war, because if you leave a vacuum behind, Hamas will attempt to fill that vacuum, and we're seeing that happen on the ground now in Gaza. And so that has been, for months now, the private message from the Army, and they have begun now to leak it into the public discourse a bit over the past few days.

GROSS: Are you hearing anything from members of the Knesset that they're not saying in public - or other political leaders in Israel?

CARLSTROM: They are having the same debate that they have been having for months now if we're talking about members of the opposition, and that is, when should they leave this government? Benny Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot - the centrist figures who joined the war cabinet back in October and gave this right-wing Israeli government a veneer of bipartisanship, a veneer of broader legitimacy - they are asking and their supporters are asking when it is time to leave and in some cases, why they haven't left already.

GROSS: Do you mean left in protest?

CARLSTROM: Yes, they joined the government - the war cabinet, I should say - in October, as a show of support, but there was an understanding that that was meant to be a short term, not an indefinite show of support. And everyone knew at some point, there would be a rupture between people like Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot who are centrist, former heads of the Army, and Netanyahu and the far-right parties that are around him. And so the expectation was that this war cabinet would be a temporary thing. And at some point, normal politics would have to resume in Israel because there is such a gulf between the government and the opposition.

But time and again, when Netanyahu has ignored the wishes of his partners in the war cabinet, those partners have stayed in the cabinet. They haven't decided to resign from the cabinet in protest. They haven't called for popular protests to try and trigger an early election that could trigger a change of government in Israel. They have stayed in much longer than I think anyone thought, and people are wondering if they stayed too long at this point. People are wondering if they have now tainted themselves, as future would-be leaders, as people who are vying to replace Netanyahu whenever there is an election and wondering if they've actually given Netanyahu enough time that he might be able to survive an early election and remain in power.

GROSS: Let's talk about people in Gaza. Do you have any idea whether Hamas has become any more or less popular among people in Gaza during this war as they flee from one place to another to try to escape Israel's bombs?

CARLSTROM: I'll say first, it's very hard to give a holistic picture of what people think in Gaza because it is so difficult right now to get in touch with people there. From my own conversations that I've had with people in Gaza over the past seven months, from polls and also from the history of what usually happens when there have been wars in Gaza, what you see is that Hamas' popularity tends to go down in Gaza and tends to go up in the occupied West Bank. And that has been the case in this war. That has been the case in previous wars. For Palestinians in the West Bank, they look at Hamas, and they see a party, a faction that is fighting Israel, and they contrast that with their own leadership in the West Bank, the Palestinian authority, led by the nationalist Fatah Party, which is committed to non-violence, which is committed to dialogue with Israel, but has absolutely nothing to show for it for decades now. And so for Palestinians in the West Bank, they tend to give their support to Hamas in times of war. Of course, they don't have to live under Hamas, and they don't have to actually live through these wars. And that's why what you see in Gaza is very often the opposite.

And I believe that to be the case now, where Hamas has done grave damage to its standing in Gaza. People there blame it for dragging the territory into a war that Hamas could not possibly win. They blame it for hiding, its leaders hiding in subterranean tunnels whilst 2 million Palestinian civilians have to live above ground, exposed to shelling and Israeli airstrikes and fighting. There is real anger amongst people in Gaza directed at Hamas for dragging them into this situation.

GROSS: You mentioned the difficulty of getting in touch with your contacts in Gaza. Can you talk about that a little bit? I imagine there's, like, no electricity to charge your phone. You might not even know where people are anymore because there's been so much ongoing displacement from one place to another to another to another.

CARLSTROM: In the first weeks and even the first couple of months, you didn't know where people were. Everyone that I spoke to in Gaza would tell you these harrowing stories of leaving their home, usually in the north, going to a relative's house that they thought was in a safer area, then having to flee a week later and then going to another relative's house or a friend's house, and they all eventually ended up in the south because that seemed comparatively safe compared to the north, but they all had these very roundabout journeys to get there. Once they got there, as you say, just the logistics of keeping in touch are difficult. There hasn't been any mains electricity in Gaza for seven months now. And so people are relying on generators. People are relying on, in some cases, solar panels that they have been able to pry off of houses, often houses that were damaged by Israeli shelling or Israeli airstrikes, and they have taken chunks of solar panels and jerry-rigged those to be able to charge phones and charge other simple devices. There have been periods where the telecommunications infrastructure has gone down because it's been so badly damaged by fighting and because there hasn't always been enough electricity to run it. So these basic things that everyone takes for granted - the ability to charge your phone and talk to someone on it - has been really, really difficult in Gaza over the past seven months.

GROSS: An estimated 35,000 people have been killed or died of starvation in Gaza, and I'm wondering if there's any - I'm wondering what the reaction is in Israel to that, if you could speak to that at all. There had been a big peace movement in Israel. I don't know what's left of it right now, and I also don't know how much Israelis are concerned with the 35,000 people who have been, you know, casualties of this war.

CARLSTROM: Well, I think if you turn on the news in Israel - if you watch the evening news on any of their main television channels - you get a sense of how concerned people are, which is to say, not really at all, because the suffering in Gaza, the humanitarian crisis, the human crisis in Gaza barely features on the Israeli news. It's something that might get a bit of coverage when something in the news propels it onto the screen.

Last month, when Israel killed seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen in an airstrike, that forced Israeli media to talk a bit about the humanitarian crisis there. But day-to-day, you just don't see that much coverage of it. It's not to say that people are entirely unaware of it. Of course, in this day and age, you have other ways to access information. But I think the fact that Israeli media don't feel the need to cover the humanitarian situation very much tells you how interested - or how disinterested - people are in hearing about it.

There was a peace camp. I mean, in the 1990s and the heyday of the Oslo Accords, when everything seemed quite optimistic about a resolution to the conflict and a two-state solution, there was a sizable peace camp in Israel, but it lost power when Rabin was assassinated, and then it lost public support during and after the Second Intifada 20 or 25 years ago. The peace camp is now a shell of what it used to be, where if you look at polls, 10%, 12%, maybe 15% of Israelis will identify as left-wing in the sense of considering themselves to be part of that peace camp. It's a movement that now has only a small minority of Israelis who support it. And I think, given not just the trend in Israel before October 7, but given the horror of what happened on October 7, it's very hard to imagine the peace camp emerging from all of this larger. It's hard to imagine it having a revival.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gregg Carlstrom. He's a Middle East correspondent for The Economist. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Gregg Carlstrom, a Middle East correspondent for The Economist. So I had asked you earlier what you're hearing from people that they're not willing to say in public, what you're hearing about the war. I want to ask you about Arab leaders. What are you hearing from some Arab leaders that they will not say in public about the war?

CARLSTROM: There's a lot that they won't say in public. There's probably more that they won't say in public than they will say in public. Going back to the very beginning, I mean, speaking with a very senior Arab official - I can't say who - but in the early days, a week or two after October 7 - and this person said, I hope Israel finishes the job in Gaza - that bluntly, that he hoped Israel would defeat Hamas and win the war in Gaza. And that's, of course, not what you would expect to hear from most officials in the Middle East, but it actually is a view that I think is held by a number of Arab governments.

Now, we shouldn't conflate governments necessarily with people. I think amongst people in the Middle East, there is still widespread opposition to Israel, widespread hostility towards Israel, but amongst governments, there is a lot of hostility towards Hamas - in some cases, towards the Palestinians writ large - and there is almost a sympathy for what Israel is doing, not the way Israel is doing it, but a sympathy for what Israel was trying to do in Gaza.

GROSS: Why do some Arab leaders hate Hamas?

CARLSTROM: For most of them, it has to do with the fact that Hamas is an Islamist movement. It emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood - originally, its ideological background stems from the Muslim Brotherhood - and the Brotherhood is a group that is maligned across much of the region by the Egyptian government, by governments in the Gulf. They see it as a threat. The Egyptian government, of course, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took power in a coup in 2013, he took power by overthrowing a Muslim Brotherhood-led government that won Egypt's first and only democratic election. He has made it his mission since he took office to try and crush whatever remained of the Brotherhood in Egypt, and that extended - for a long time, that extended to hostility towards Hamas, which he saw as direct offshoot of the Brotherhood.

Same thing for governments in the Gulf. They have always - particularly the government of the UAE has always worried about political Islam - the Brotherhood in particular, but political Islam in general - as being something that might organize opposition to their rule and might be a source of internal dissent, and so it is something that they have always worked to quash.

GROSS: If you look at the same anonymous leaders that you're talking about, what are the reactions to Israel now? You say that some of them have sympathy for Israel, but not for the way Israel is carrying out this war. Can you elaborate on that?

CARLSTROM: There's a lot of frustration. You know, there was a hope - if you go back to before October 7, first of all, there was a real hope amongst the Gulf States in particular that they would continue to deepen their ties with Israel. The UAE and Bahrain had already established relations, of course, in 2020 with the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia was looking to make a normalization deal with Israel as part of this more complicated three-way agreement that would also see it sign a defense treaty with the United States. The Gulf was putting a lot of stock in ties with Israel as a source of military cooperation in the region, a source of economic growth and bilateral investment. And all of that obviously was put on hold after October 7 and after Israel invaded Gaza. And so there's a frustration that - not only that it's on hold, but that Israel is not doing anything to try and move it forward.

The Saudis are really, really desperate, I think, to make a deal with Israel before November. They want to get a deal done before President Biden leaves office. They're worried that if Donald Trump comes back, they may not be able to make the same deal that they have negotiated with Biden. And so they're eager to do this three-way deal with Israel and the United States before November. But they need the Israeli government to give them some gesture towards a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. It doesn't have to be even a firm timeline to create a Palestinian state and end the occupation. But the Saudis need something, some kind of fig leaf towards the Palestinians. And this Israeli government is not willing to offer even that.

So they have obstructed any diplomatic progress on normalization, which is something that Gulf States did place a lot of stock in. And they have fought this war in Gaza in such a way they have killed so many civilians. They've caused such a horrific humanitarian crisis that they have obviously engendered huge anger across the region. And that's something that worries Gulf leaders because they're worried about what that means for stability across the region.

GROSS: One of the reasons why Saudis want this agreement with Israel is because, in return, the U.S. would give or sell - I'm not sure which - more arms to the Saudis as part of the deal.

CARLSTROM: It's very self-interested for Saudi Arabia. I mean, if you actually look at the terms of this three-way deal, it's great for the Saudis. They get a defense treaty with the United States, which includes expanded and eased arms sales to the kingdom. They get American help to set up a civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia and possibly set it up without the sort of constraints on uranium enrichment that America usually demands from other countries. It's a very friendly deal. It's a sweetheart deal for the Saudis.

The Israelis would get normalization with Saudi Arabia, with the wealthiest Arab state, with the country that is the birthplace of Islam, a normalization deal that would be very symbolically important for Israel. It's not clear what the United States gets out of it. It's giving a lot to Saudi Arabia. And it's not entirely clear what it gets in return for making this deal.

GROSS: Why are the Saudis afraid that if Trump returns to office that the deal will be stopped? I mean, 'cause it plays off of the Abraham Accords, which were accomplished during the Trump administration. So why would Trump want to stop the progression of that?

CARLSTROM: I think the Saudis have two concerns when it comes to Trump. The first is just that Trump is unpredictable. They have a deal right now that they have negotiated over a period of years with the Biden administration. And there's still a few details they have to work out, but they more or less have the framework of an agreement. And they know that the Biden administration wants to sign that deal. They're worried that if he leaves and Trump comes in, they may have to renegotiate. They may have to start over, almost. And so that's something they obviously want to avoid.

GROSS: Well, we need to take another short break here. So let me reintroduce you. My guest is Gregg Carlstrom. He's a Middle East correspondent for The Economist. We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAI MAESTRO'S "NEW RIVER, NEW WATER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Gregg Carlstrom, a Middle East correspondent for The Economist. So we've been talking about Arab leaders and the interests of the Arab countries in the greater region and their reaction to the war. So some Arab states pay lip service to the cause of the Palestinians, but don't do anything to actually help them, or don't do much. For example, in Lebanon, Palestinians can't own property; they can't hold certain jobs; they don't have access to many government services. What do you perceive now, in terms of verbal support for Palestinians and actually doing more to help them?

CARLSTROM: I think it's all still lip service, as you say. With the exception of Jordan, which has more or less given equal rights to Palestinians, other states in the region tend to treat them terribly. That is the case in Lebanon. There are Palestinians in Egypt who have been in Egypt for half a century and still don't have full rights as citizens in Egypt. So in that sense, in the sense of taking care of refugees, taking care of displaced people, they've always been happy to leave that job to the United Nations, leave it to UNRWA and to other U.N. agencies and then have someone else foot the bill and take responsibility.

It's lip service also when it comes to military or diplomatic moves. I mean, if you look at countries across the region, they have made a lot of angry statements since October 7, but none of them have severed ties with Israel. There have been ambassadors recalled from Tel Aviv. There have been diplomatic downgrades, but no one has taken the step of formally severing ties with Israel. You can still get on a plane three times a day in Dubai and fly to Tel Aviv. The UAE has never shut down its commercial links or its transport links with Israel. But that's true of other countries in the region, as well. That's true of Egypt. That's true of Bahrain. They have kept diplomatic ties. In some cases, they have kept commercial ties with Israel.

GROSS: Let's talk about Iran. Iran sponsors Hamas. Iran sponsors Hezbollah. But both of them have been attacking Israel. There are Arab leaders who are really afraid of Iran and what Iran might do. Iran has more fully entered into the picture in this war because in addition to supporting the militias - you know, in addition to supporting Hezbollah and Hamas - Iran attacked Israel after Israel killed an Iranian military leader who was based in Syria. That's when Iran sent, like, 300 drones to Israel. Most of those drones were taken down by the U.S. and other countries, but it was Iran directly entering the war in a way that it hadn't before. And that's causing a lot of concern around the world, but particularly, I think, for Arab leaders - obviously, particularly for Israel. But what are the Arab leaders' concerns about Iran right now that have been accentuated by Iran's entry into the war?

CARLSTROM: They have a lot of concerns. And it was, I think, easy for some people to dismiss what happened last month - to dismiss this tit for tat between Iran and Israel - because the Iranian strike on Israel was largely ineffective because, as you say, most of these missiles and drones were shot down, and only a handful of them got through. And so there were a lot of people who said, you know, this was a sign that Iran is sort of a paper tiger, and we shouldn't take seriously the risk of conflict with Iran. But that is very much not the view for governments in the Gulf.

They have always viewed Iran - most of them have always viewed Iran as their main threat. It is a country that is not just ideologically opposed to them but is geopolitically opposed to them, has been fighting this proxy war against Saudi Arabia for the past couple of decades in places like Lebanon and Yemen. And it's a proxy war that the Iranians have largely won. They have this now network of militias entrenched across the Middle East, and the Gulf States have nothing to rival it. And we've seen those militias, on various occasions, attack Saudi Arabia. They attacked Saudi oil facilities. Five years ago, they briefly shut down half the kingdom's oil production. They attacked the UAE two years ago, firing drones at Abu Dhabi.

So these militias backed by Iran, they surround the Gulf, and they have in the past demonstrated an ability to attack the Gulf. And now you have this emerging conflict between Iran and Israel - direct conflict between Iran and Israel - an Israeli state that the UAE and Bahrain have already normalized relations with, the Saudis are looking to normalize relations with. So there's a concern in the Gulf that they might get dragged into a regional conflict, that if Iran and Israel continue fighting - if their fighting escalates, their direct fighting - Iran might also choose to lash out at states in the Arab world, Gulf States that have normalized ties with Israel. It might pull them into that war, and that is something that the Gulf States, which realize they're very, very vulnerable - it's something they want to avoid.

GROSS: Has Iran directly threatened any countries, like if it comes to assisting the U.S.? Like, Jordan helped shoot down similar drones in the Iranian attack on Israel. Did Iran threaten Jordan after that?

CARLSTROM: Jordan did help. It played a very significant role, and Iran did threaten it. It wasn't the most direct threat, but it implicitly said, if we attack Israel again and you choose to get involved again, then, you know, sort of, nice country you have here; it would be a shame if something happened to it.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

CARLSTROM: They have made it clear, and they have done other things subtly to send a message to Jordan that they would consider - I'm not sure they would consider striking Jordan directly, but trying to play games with Jordan's stability, trying to do things that might destabilize Jordan politically - they have made it clear that they would do that.

GROSS: And in Gaza, Hamas, which is supported by Iran - they run the government. They run the territory. So it's not like they're part of the government. They are the government now.

CARLSTROM: They have been. I think the question is whether they can remain that way. They started as a militant group carrying out attacks against Israelis. But in their early days, I don't think they had any aspiration to govern. They really were just a militia in their early days. They gradually moved into politics. They won the last legislative election in the Palestinian territories almost 20 years ago. And then after a period of infighting with the Palestinian Authority, they took control of Gaza. And they were suddenly in this position where they had to govern. And they had to hire a bureaucracy and oversee a civil service and do all of the very mundane things that governments are supposed to do and didn't have much interest in doing those things.

I mean, there are Hamas leaders who have given very telling interviews over the past seven or eight months who have said, you know, we saw our role as that of a military force building up military capabilities. That's why they invested so much in this network of tunnels under Gaza. It's why they invested so heavily in building rockets and amassing other weapons. And they left the - many of the responsibilities of civilian governance to the U.N. and to international NGOs that provided lifesaving aid for people. So they were the government, but they were a very unique sort of militarized and disinterested government.

But I think now what's likely to happen after the war - whenever this war ends - is that they will go back to their roots. They will go back to being a more shadowy militia group that carries out attacks on the Israeli troops who will probably remain in Gaza for the foreseeable future. They will carry out attacks on whatever governing body arises to control Gaza going forward. And they will try not to be the overt rulers in the way that they were for the previous almost 20 years.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gregg Carlstrom, Middle East correspondent for The Economist. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Gregg Carlstrom, who's joining us from Dubai. He is a Middle East correspondent for The Economist.

President Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, criticized the Netanyahu government this week for not having a political plan for the future of Gaza. Israel wants to wipe out Hamas. Hamas wants to wipe out Israel. So what might a political plan for the future of Gaza look like? President Biden says he'd like to see a two-state solution. A lot of people in the Middle East - a lot of leaders in the Middle East think, too late for that. That's dead. So do you think a two-state solution is still at all feasible? And if not, what are some of the alternatives that have been proposed?

CARLSTROM: I think you have two questions. You have the short-term question of who's going to run Gaza now and immediately after the war? And then you have the longer-term question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not just Gaza, but the occupation - the Israel occupation writ large. On the more immediate question, I think Jake Sullivan is right that the Israelis don't have a plan for postwar Gaza. I'm not sure the Americans have a viable plan either. I'm not sure anyone does, to be honest.

I mean, what the Americans have pushed for months now is they would like the Palestinian Authority to come back and exert control in Gaza, which it used to govern until it was thrown out by Hamas in 2007. And so they want Israel to commit to bringing the PA back to Gaza. The problem with that is the PA is incredibly weak at this point. It is considered illegitimate by a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank. About two-thirds of them think the PA should be dissolved because they think it serves no purpose anymore, except serving as a - almost the subcontractor for the Israeli occupation and an extremely corrupt governing body that has stolen billions and billions of dollars over the years.

So it doesn't have much support on the ground in Gaza, where it would have to contend with probably an ongoing insurgency by the remnants of Hamas. So it's not at all clear that bringing back the PA is a viable plan. Even if you think it's a worthy plan, it may not be a viable one for Gaza. But then no one else has suggested anything better.

I mean, the Israelis have talked about trying to cobble together this local administration of powerful clans and powerful families in Gaza, which is a repeat of how they used to govern the territory before the Oslo Accords, before the 1990s. It was a recipe for infighting between clans and violence and lots of unrest in Gaza. That's not really a great idea. No one has a good plan for what to do in the short term. And the longer this war goes on and the more this power vacuum becomes entrenched, I think the harder it's going to be to imagine any kind of political alternative there.

The longer-term question, then, about a two-state solution - you know, if you look at the polls of Israelis and Palestinians - and they're ultimately the ones who matter here - support has dropped, both amongst Israeli Jews and amongst Palestinians. A few decades ago, strong majorities of both communities supported a two-state solution. Now it doesn't have majority support in either place. But nobody can agree on what should replace it.

If you ask Israelis, some of them will say, we should just continue the occupation indefinitely. There's no reason to have a solution. Some of them will say Israel should annex all the territories and throw out the Palestinians, if possible. A small number of them support a one-state solution, a binational state. And you see that - a lot of that mirrored on the Palestinian side. People just cannot agree on, OK, if the two-state solution is dead, what is the alternative? Nothing has acquired anything close to majority support amongst either community.

GROSS: One proposal for Gaza is an international governing body. Does that have any traction?

CARLSTROM: I'm not sure it does. I mean, part of that proposal is international peace keepers, and I think that's an essential first ingredient. You can't have an international governing body if you don't have some kind of international force providing security. And what's been talked about, what some Israeli officials have suggested, what's been talked about a bit in Washington is trying to put together an Arab peacekeeping force in Gaza. The problem is, I think none of the people floating this idea have actually asked Arab states how they feel about it. And when you speak to officials in this region, they all tell you they have no interest in taking part in a peacekeeping force in Gaza. They're going to be asked to probably work alongside the Israeli army, policing Palestinians, and that is just not a position politically that they want to find themselves in. I think if you don't have that international force to provide security, it's hard to see how you would have any broader international governing body in Gaza.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gregg Carlstrom, Middle East correspondent for the Economist. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Gregg Carlstrom, who's joining us from Dubai. He is a Middle East correspondent for the Economist.

The war doesn't seem to be coming to an end anytime soon. The peace talks seem to be stalemated right now. When the war does end, eventually, what do you think people in Gaza will face? There are so many parts of Gaza that are totally unlivable now, that, you know, that have just been destroyed. It would take an immense amount of time and money to rebuild Gaza. What do you see for the future of Gaza, just in terms of, like, living conditions and the ability to survive there?

CARLSTROM: Misery and despair - I think that's going to be the foreseeable future in Gaza. I mean, I remember after the war in 2014, which was, back then, by far the biggest war that Israel and Hamas had fought. And I remember years after that war going back to Gaza and finding people who still had not been able to rebuild their homes or rebuild their businesses because they didn't have enough money. They didn't have enough construction materials getting into the territory. And so two, three years after the war, there was still damage that hadn't been repaired. The damage from this war is just exponentially worse than anything Gaza has seen before. And I think even if there is a pot of billions of dollars made available for reconstruction, tens of billions of dollars, and even if the blockade that has hampered reconstruction in the past is lifted and materials are able to actually flow into Gaza, it's going to be decades before it can even get back to the very poor standard of living that it was at before the war. And so I think for most people, what they're going to know in the coming years is they will be homeless, first of all. Most people - their homes have been either destroyed or damaged to the point where they are probably unlivable.

And so people are going to be sheltering in tent camps and displacement camps for the foreseeable future. The economy has been reduced to ruins. Pick any sector of Gaza's economy, which, again, because of the blockade, it was in very bad shape even before the war. Half the population was unemployed. Most people were poor. But there were at least a few sectors of the economy that were functioning. There were farms. There was an agricultural sector. There were some small factories. All of that is gone. The farms have either been bombed or the crops and livestock have all died because they've been neglected for months. The factories in Gaza have all been destroyed or damaged. Even the handful of hotels that served visiting diplomats and aid workers and journalists and employed, you know, hundreds of people - most of those hotels have been destroyed by Israeli bombing over the past 7 1/2 months.

So there's no viable economic sectors left. People are going to be entirely dependent on handouts, on aid from the international community. And that is going to be life, I think, for the foreseeable future. It's going to be one big displacement camp.

GROSS: Yeah. And as you've pointed out, the people in this one big displacement camp are people - are typically the descendants of people who were displaced when Israel became a state.

CARLSTROM: They are. Most of the population of Gaza was displaced to Gaza after 1948. Many of them hail from further north along the coast in what is now Israel, was back then mandatory Palestine, and they were displaced into Gaza. The whole story of Gaza as a territorial entity has to do with war and conflict. And the borders of Gaza are the cease-fire borders that were drawn between Israel and Egypt when it was fighting for independence in 1948. So the idea that Gaza is some sort of separate territorial entity - that was never actually the case until recent history. It was always something that was integrated into the broader Southern Mediterranean milieu.

It was a trading hub. It was a place that people would pass through, ships would stop, caravans would stop, but it was never this sort of self-governing entity that it has become in recent decades. And it can't actually survive as that self-governing entity. I mean, there's been some hopeful talk from various people that if you put enough money into Gaza, even if you don't reconnect it to the occupied West Bank or to anything else, Gaza can turn into almost Singapore on the Mediterranean, and you can build high-tech sectors, and you can build a tourism sector, and it doesn't work. Gaza is too small, and it's too starved of natural resources to exist as a really independent polity. It needs to be integrated into something bigger, whether that's a two-state solution where it's integrated with the West Bank or confederation or something where it also has integration with Israel. It can't exist on its own as an independent entity.

GROSS: How close do you think certain areas in Gaza are to famine, and how successfully is aid getting through right now?

CARLSTROM: So there's a technical definition of famine - right? - which has three parts. It has to do with a certain number of people being malnourished and a certain number of children are wasting and a certain number of people are dying, and you have to meet these three criteria for the U.N. body that oversees these things to formally declare a famine. And when I've spoken to U.N. officials over the past few months, they've said, honestly, we're not sure we'll ever be at that point where we can make that official declaration, because there is just not enough data in some parts of Gaza. The medical infrastructure has collapsed so badly that it may not be possible to assess all three of those points.

But then there's a sort of real-world understanding of famine, and I think Gaza - northern Gaza - is absolutely and has absolutely been for weeks, if not months now, in a state of famine. I mean, that's the assessment we've heard from Cindy McCain, the head of the World Food Programme, that's the assessment we've heard from other U.N. officials, and that tracks with, you know, my own conversations that I've had with people about how little food is available, how people are routinely going 24 hours without a meal, or foraging for weeds and leaves and other wild plants to try and get something to eat. I mean, that has been the case in northern Gaza in particular for months now, and so I think it's absolutely correct to say that parts of Gaza have entered a famine.

GROSS: You mentioned that the opinion is that the Biden administration has done nothing meaningful in terms of deterring Israel from the kind of bombing it's been carrying out in Gaza, but Biden has recently said he would withhold armed shipments for the bombing or invasion of Rafah.

CARLSTROM: And it took him a very long time to get there. If you think about everything else that his administration has asked Israel to do over the past 7 1/2 months, it's been asking since October for a conversation about what happens after the war and about postwar diplomacy, and the Netanyahu government has rebuffed Biden time and again on that. Biden has been asking for more humanitarian aid to go into Gaza, and that was largely ignored until the airstrike last month - the Israeli airstrike that killed those World Central Kitchen aid workers. It was only after that that Israel started allowing more aid to get into Gaza. It wasn't because of months of pleading by the Biden administration.

So it's - he's been ignored on so many things, and Rafah was eventually the straw that broke the camel's back and the thing that compelled him to freeze this one shipment of bombs meant for Israel, and to threaten that there could be broader restrictions on arms deliveries, but I think the question will be just how broad is that going to be? I mean, the Israelis are taking that threat seriously - or at least the Israeli army is taking that threat seriously, because they do depend on American resupply - but I think they're also waiting to see just how serious the White House is and how far they're willing to go with holding back on arms shipments.

GROSS: Gregg Carlstrom, thank you so much. I really appreciate you talking with us.

CARLSTROM: Thanks for having me. My pleasure.

GROSS: Gregg Carlstrom is a Middle East correspondent for The Economist. He spoke to us from Dubai. After we recorded our interview yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that President Biden has indicated to Congress that he plans to call for a billion dollars of future arms shipments to Israel, but critics say that planning on future arms sales to Israel undercuts the current message the White House has been sending to the Netanyahu government not to launch an assault on Rafah. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be writer Carvell Wallace. He's known for his profiles of musicians, athletes and politicians like Samuel L. Jackson, Steph Curry and Michael B. Jordan. Now, Wallace has written a memoir about his own life - growing up unhoused, Black and queer, and coming into writing as a profession at 40 years old. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG & GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "AIRPORT FUGUE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

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